PHYSICAL FABRIC Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Worcester York fire prevention firefighting regulations chimney
Subject: Fire fighting
Original source: 1. Worcestershire Record Office, Worcester City Collection, BA 9360 / x496.5 / C2 - Box 1, volume of ordinances; 2. York City Archives, Memorandum Book A/Y, f.345
Transcription in: 1. Toulmin Smith, ed. English Gilds, Early English Text Society, old series, vol.40 (1870), 382, 385-86; 2. Maud Sellers, ed., York Memorandum Book, part II (1388-1493), Surtees Society, vol.125 (1914), 255.
Original language: 1. Middle English; 2. French
Location: Worcester, York
Date: late 14th and 15th centuries


[1. Fire-fighting responsibility, Worcester, 14 September 1466]

The bucketers are to be ready with their horses and buckets to bring water to every citizen, when he is so requested by any man or child, when any fire threatens within the city, upon penalty of forfeiting 40d., half [payable] to the bailiffs and the other half to the communal treasury.


Also, there are to be 5 fire-hooks to be available for every occasion where fire is threatening part of the city; they are to be placed in three sections of the city. God forbid that we have need of them! The chamberlains are to have these hooks made.

Also, there will be no toleration of chimneys made of wood or thatched houses in the city. Anyone having one is to get rid of it and make the chimney of stone or brick, by next midsummer, or is to tile a [formerly] thatched house by the same date, upon penalty of 6s.8d. paid into the common treasury, and after that deadline 6s.8d every 6 months until they have complied.

[2. Punishment for owners of York houses that catch fire]

If any house within the city catches on fire, so that the flames from the fire can be seen from outside the house, whoever lives in the house is to pay the city bailiffs 40d. because he has not kept an eye on his fire, with the result that the king's subjects are endangered.


As with so many matters, London – whose larger population and more complex socio-economic structure posed greater challenges than those faced by most other English towns – is the source of the most detailed provisions for fire prevention and suppression. We do find references elsewhere to this matter, however. Lynn, for example, had several communal ladders made for public works and fire-fighting. While for the same latter purpose Coventry authorities had in 1474 designated householders in each ward to be responsible for the making of fire-hooks, ropes and ladders, and in 1493 ordered every ex-mayor to pay for the fabrication of two leather buckets, each former sheriff to pay for one, each pair of chamberlains or wardens a bucket between them, and each trio of wealthier citizens the same. On the latter occasion they also set a fine of 100s. on anyone constructing a chimney from timber, and ordered anyone having such a chimney to either pull it down or provide guarantees of making compensation should damage result from such dangerous chimneys.

The brief references from Worcester and York – each extracted from lengthy and wide-ranging sets of ordinances, the former promulgated in 1466 and the latter (undated) probably in the late fourteenth century (prior to the bailiffs being superseded by sheriffs in 1396) – also show that local government had provisions in place to deal with fire. In the former case the authorities show an awareness of the need to address both prevention and suppression measures; suppression was addressed both by trying to put out the fire and by pulling down the burning building with the hooks. In the latter case the focus is on prevention, through a fine on anyone foolish or negligent enough to allow a fire to take hold. In both cases we feel that the concern of the authorities is less with the plight of the householder than with the risk of the fire spreading.



"bucketers" "buckets"
The terms in the original are Bitters and bittes. Smith associates it with an Anglo-Saxon term, byt, for a flagon, and concludes that the 15th century use of the term relates to a container for fetching water, such as a "leathern bottle or bucket" [op.cit., 465].

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Created: August 27, 2004. Last update: May 25, 2007 © Stephen Alsford, 2004-2007